Reading into the Nats' great expectations

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Sports,MLB,Nationals,Brian McNally

The Nationals are far from a finished puzzle. The lineup still has question marks, their ace pitcher will see his season end early and their super prospect may not be ready for prime time.

There is a gaping hole in center field and no long-term solution at first base. The roster lacks players who can consistently reach base, limiting the ceiling of the offense, and even its depth, an offseason priority, is in question.

And yet the vibe at Space Coast Stadium in Viera, Fla., this spring training was overwhelmingly positive. Compared to past seasons, when the rotation was an open casting call and half the positions on the field were manned by stop-gap players, that confidence was palpable. The Nats have no idea if this is the year they reach Major League Baseball's postseason for the first time. They have no clue if they can end the aging Philadelphia Phillies' domination of the National League East.

But for now, it is enough that the general manager wasn't forced to resign during camp -- that actually happened in 2009 -- or that an expected key contributor was dumped in a trade just weeks before the season (Elijah Dukes, Nyjer Morgan). But there are plenty of reasons to expect more than just the first winning season since the organization relocated to Washington in 2005 -- even if most experts peg the Nats as a year away from true contention in what could be baseball's second-best division, the National League East.

"I think that this is going to be a really interesting division," ESPN baseball analyst Orel Hershiser said. "We've been following the American League East for so long and really watching those teams, and Tampa Bay has made a dent on the Bostons and the New Yorks. Well, all of the sudden Washington's got a chance to make a dent on the Braves and the Phillies, and it's going to be fun to watch."

The additions of starting pitchers Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson to a group that already included ace Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann gives the Nats depth in the rotation only a few teams can match, including the gold-standard group Philadelphia employs. The bullpen is also a strength. But organizational depth counts for something, too, and it's unclear if there's enough in place to lift the Nats above the Phillies, Atlanta Braves and the suddenly free-spending Florida Marlins.

"If you go into a season with the 25 players [Washington] put together, it's starting to look pretty interesting," ESPN analyst Terry Francona said. "But when you contend you're going to need another 10 to 15 [players] throughout the year and that's where the organizational depth is going to start to come into play."

It looks like the Nats have that in their rotation with Chien-Ming Wang, John Lannan and Ross Detwiler all capable of anchoring the back-end of the rotation. With the dominant spring posted by Henry Rodriguez, the bullpen could be the best in the sport as long as closer Drew Storen -- who will open the season on the DL -- can get healthy. But the offense is still a work-in-progress and spring injuries to slugger Michael Morse and first baseman Adam LaRoche exposed the limits of the lineup.

But given all that, expectations remain the highest they've ever been for Washington. With top prospect Bryce Harper available as an early-season jolt while continuing his development at Triple-A Syracuse -- not to mention other promising hitters like 2011 draft picks Anthony Rendon and Brian Goodwin on the way in the next year or two -- the pipeline is far from dry. It's all fuel for a fire that is burning brighter for a once-hapless franchise that's ready to take the next step forward.

"We've gone through all that losing," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "The front office has done a good job drafting. The farm system has gone from one of the worst to one of the best. They knew what they were doing so I think the plan -- the first part of it anyway of stocking up on talent -- has worked. Now it's up to us to take it to that next level and win some games."

bmcnally@washingtonexaminer.com

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Brian McNally

Staff writer - sports
The Washington Examiner